Discovery Retail, Part 1: Consumer Electronics

This is the first part in a series I’ll use to explore retail (likely offline, but could be online) that emphasizes product discovery over - or in ways equal to - immediate sales.

This week in the Bay Area, I visited three stores that are platforms for new consumer electronics:

Target Open House:

While Target sadly shut down its store-of-the-future R&D division, they’ve kept a store in San Francisco that‘s dedicated to connected home. The main, most product-oriented area of the store is upfront and features a few rows of tables that display gadgets, each one with a tablet next to it to explain the what and why. While I haven’t seen this experience carried into standard Target stores, the product - a smart light bulb or plug-in herb garden - isn’t outside the realm of what I’d expect to find in one.

Another part of the store recreates small rooms, such as a kitchen, with just a couple of associated smart items and an introductory screen asking me questions to help guide my experience. In one room, I could choose to explore the “design loving you” or the “sports fan you”, for example. It was a bit too slow to engage my shopping partner or me for long.

I wonder about Target’s objectives for this footprint give the company’s store innovation focus has waned. It’s hard to imagine they’re using data from this non-microcosm to inform tech or merchandise or shopping methods more broadly. If it’s a brand play, it’s not a bad one, even if the store was empty when I visited.

AT&T:

This flagship location looks less like a place one would go to ask a question about a wireless bill or just pick up a new iPhone and more like a place one would go to do... I’m not exactly sure what. In particular, the second floor, which an associate encouraged me to check out, was filled with a lot of bistro tables and no people. There was a VR experience to try and a kitchen set-up that looked like it should have a cappuccino machine ready to go, but no luck. The most compelling part of the layout was a well-merchandised music section that featured live headphones - actual items one might want to try and buy - against a backdrop of an eye-catching guitar and accessories.

b8ta:

With a business model that’s now well-documented, this start-up is pay-to-play; rather than driving sales in the store, b8ta collects “subscription” fees from brands (typically online-only) who want a presence. This is good news for customer experience in a few related ways.

Notably, b8ta is unlike many department store beauty floors where the space is clearly segregated by each brand and associates only sell the brand that’s paying them: people who work in this store clearly are trained and knowledgeable across products. The congruous display for each product means the store has a cohesive feel, unobstructed by large brand signage or fixtures. The drawback, of course, is there’s not as visually prominent a way for companies that want to build their brands to do so. And the environment today doesn’t seem consistent with bringing in bigger brands that typically demand a louder presence.

Not only is the physical presentation at b8ta consistent throughout, but the digital experience is, as well: A tablet adjacent to each item has the same set-up so, as you move throughout the store, you quickly get used to the tabs for learning, video demos, and more (just as you do when you jump from product page to product page when shopping online).

Overall, I see this as a scalable way for newer brands in various categories to pay for interactive media (because many stores serve as media, after all) in a way that cuts through today’s advertising noise. It’s also a new way for consumers who are enthusiastic about product discovery to touch and feel what’s new. As long as brands who pay enough to be there for b8ta to work see the ROI to keeping doing it.

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